Golden Age Showcase: Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross

WARNING: This article contains a frank description of the history and politics of the American hate group known as the Ku Klux Klan. This group has a long and ugly history of racist violence that unfortunately continues today.  Also, this article contains images and descriptions that many people will find offensive.  If this bothers you, it is perfectly okay to not read this article.

Superman is 80 years old today!

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Today I want to talk about one of Superman’s greatest, and most important, stories.  It’s not a comic book, it’s a radio show, and it is one of the most important pieces of superhero media ever produced.

It’s Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross, the story where Superman literally, not figuratively but LITERALLY, helped bring down one of the most vile and awful hate groups in American history.

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Background and History

The KKK was a white nationalist group that was initially founded just after the American Civil War in 1865 by a group of former Confederate soldiers.

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Their goal was to intimidate newly freed black slaves and prevent them from voting and trying to improve their lives.

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The Federal Government cracked down on them, declaring them a paramilitary terrorist organization and forbade them from assembling.

While this version of the group was crippled, they would make a comeback in the 1920’s with the premiere of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation: a fictionalized and highly romanticized account of the original klan.

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Unfortunately, the movie was an incredibly effective recruiting tool and the new version of the klan exploded in popularity.  They adjusted their message slightly, instead of targeting black people they became anti immigrant and for the prohibition of alcohol.

They even managed to become involved in politics.

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By the 1940’s the Klan returned to form, campaigning against equal rights for black people across the American South through violence.

One of the people who saw all these horrible things happen was a man named Stetson Kennedy,

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Kennedy was a writer and activist from Florida who saw what was going around him and decided that he didn’t like the KKK very much.  So he decided to do something about it by infiltrating the organization and finding out as much as he could.

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He discovered that the Klan was less intimidating and had some really stupid customs and rituals, not really surprising considering that it’s a bunch of guys dressed in sheets, and decided to make them look as ridiculous as he could.

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Sadly, there was a problem: how was Stetson going to share his information with the public?  What could he use to reach as many people as possible?

This is where The Adventures of Superman radio show came in.

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The show was produced and syndicated by the New York radio station WOR and starred a man named Bud Collyer as Superman and Joan Alexander as Lois Lane.

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In 1946, Mr. Kennedy approached the radio show and asked them if he could use Superman to share his findings about the Klan with the world.  DC comics was more than happy to oblige since the Second World War was over and Superman couldn’t fight German Nazis anymore.  Now he would fight the American version.

Here’s the first part of the radio special for your listening pleasure.  I skipped the first two minutes of the video because it’s an add for a discontinued breakfast cereal called Kellogg Pep, but it’s still pretty good and I highly recommend tracking down the rest of the series and giving it a listen.

So what was the impact?

The effects of the radio broadcast were immediate and massive.  Within two weeks recruitment into the Klan was down, and by 1948 people were openly mocking its members at their rallies.

Kennedy would go on to share the rest of what he learned about the Klan with the authorities, and even wrote several books which led to arrests and prosecutions for several chapters.

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So the Klan was substantially weakened, thanks to Superman.

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Sadly, while the Klan was substantially weakened it wasn’t killed off completely.  The organization maintains a violent anti immigrant and white nationalist stance and holds rallies to this day,

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and there’s a former low level politician named David Duke who is a member of Klan who has gained an unfortunately large amount of attention.

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It’s worth mentioning that the FBI has reported a rise in hate crimes and hate groups in America over the past couple of years, it’s not a very large rise and can be attributed to a small number of very vocal fringe groups.

A lot of people say that Superman is boring, too powerful, and too much of a goody two shoes to be interesting in the modern world.  But in a world that is filled with some awful people and vile ideologies,

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it’s good to know that we have characters like Superman who stand for what is true and just.

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Here’s to 80 more years.

 

 

4th of July Special: My top 5 Superman stories

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

and what better way to celebrate American independence than to look at the greatest American superhero ever created.

Is there anyone in modern fiction that embodies the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way?

Well, technically that last part isn’t exactly honest.  The “American Way” part of the motto wasn’t added until the 1950’s in an attempt to make Superman more politically friendly and “safe” for kids.  The original Superman had no problem threatening politicians and destroying homes in the name of justice and fair treatment.

Still, all things aside, Superman’s commitment to fighting for the little guy does make him an important figure in American pop culture.  He’s been dissected, discussed, and re interpreted countless time throughout the decades and today I would like to talk about five of the most important and/or interesting Superman stories ever told.

I believe that these five stories focus on a major aspect of Superman’s character and attempt to explain who the Man of Steel is and why he is, and must remain, the way he is.  This list is not designed to be an extensive description of the plots of each of these stories and I highly encourage you to check them out on your own.

Note: This list is my opinion and my opinion only.  If I left out your favorite Superman story please feel free to let me know in the comments.

5. Superman: Red Son

Writer: Mark Millar

Artists: Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett

Date published: 2003

A huge part of Superman’s personality and character stems from the fact that he grew up on a small farm in the middle of Kanses, the heartland of America.

His parents raised him the best way they could and gave their adopted son Clark the values and moral compass that made him the hero he became.

“Red Son” asks the question: what if Superman hadn’t landed in Kansas?  What if he had landed in America’s ideological opponent: the Soviet Union?

Without going into too much detail it’s safe to say it doesn’t end very well for America and instead of being instilled with values that promote freedom and individual liberty the new Soviet Superman becomes something akin to a Big Brother figure, watching over the people of the world as an authority figure rather than a benevolent guardian.

4. What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Writer: Joe Kelly

Artists: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo

Date published: 2001

Unlike most titles on the list this is not a stand alone story, rather it’s an arc in the Action Comics title, which is the long running Superman series that started in 1938 and only ended in 2011 (we’ll get to that).

This story is a discussion on one of the biggest questions a lot of readers have about Superman: why doesn’t he just kill his enemies?

Now, some superheroes do kill,

and some superheroes used to kill

but had that part of their character changed due to editorial mandate and the need to keep a running stable of villains.

While Superman has had his fair share of violent streaks, he has remained pretty committed to not killing his enemies for a very long time.  Even though he has the power to wipe out entire solar systems

and many people have pointed out that, by letting the bad guys he captures live, they have gone on to cause even more death and destruction.

Seriously, in order for a villain to present a threat to Superman they either have to have enough power to rack up a body count in the billions or wield enough intelligence and influence to control countless numbers of people.

“What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” answered that question and gave a pretty good reason as to why Superman doesn’t just kill his enemies, no matter how much they may deserve it.

The story starts with Superman coming face to face with a group of heroes known as “The Elite”

They are a group of erstwhile heroes who have no qualms about killing the villains they capture, much to the delight of the people of Earth and the dismay of Superman.

Things come to a head and the Elite and Superman wind up fighting each other.

It is very much an ideological battle that asks a whole lot of questions.  What is the purpose of a hero?  What is the proper use of power?  How far should a hero go in order to keep the peace?

All of these questions are answered in a fight that I believe is one of the best fights in comics.  Granted, the story can be a little heavy handed and self serving at times, but the story shows why Superman must remain the way he his, why he is still relevant it today’s society, and gives us a glimpse into the terrifying vision of a Superman who has no problem killing people.

3. All Star Superman

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Frank Quietly

Publication date: 2011

This is the most modern Superman story to appear on the list and one that answers the OTHER big question about Superman: how can you make a man who is literally invulnerable interesting?

Morrison tackles this question by doing something brilliant: he kills Superman.

Basically, an accident near the sun saturates Superman’s cells with radiation and he only has a short while to live before he disintegrates into energy.

The story is about the last days of Superman on Earth as he says goodbye to Louis Lane.

manages to defeat Lex Luthor one last time,

and comes to grips with his own mortality and several of the stranger bits of the Superman mythos.

This is Superman at his most basic essence.  He’s not protecting a cause, he’s not working with any other hero, he’s a God among men and he is doing everything he can to help.

This series is also home to what I consider to be the greatest page in all of comics.

I tear up every time.

2. Action Comics #1

Not only is this the first appearance of the Superman we know and love, it’s the first American superhero comic ever published.

We owe so much to this comic it’s difficult to describe.  Everything from the costume,

to his secret identity,

To his strange origins define so much of what it means to be a modern day superhero.

Granted, there were other masked vigilantes around before Superman and yes, there are plenty of heroes who have gone on to eclipse the Man of Steel in popularity but I think it is important to remember that without this,

there would be none of this.

1. Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross

This isn’t a comic book, it’s a story that ran as a radio serial between June 16th, 1946 to July 1st, 1946 and I believe it is the single most important Superman story ever created.

Post war America had a problem with a group called the Ku Klux Klan.

For anyone who might not know, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK for short) is a vile hate group that was formed by white men in the American South in order to protect American societ, just as long as that society was white and Protestant Christian.

Unfortunately they are still around and while they used to campaign against the inclusion of black people into American society

they continue to exist today as a force campaigning against immigration and what they perceive as an invasion of America by foreigners.

So why am I talking about this?  Well, in the 1940’s a human rights activist and investigative journalist from Jacksonville Florida named Stetson Kennedy decided to go undercover and investigate the Klan.

He uncovered a whole bunch of the Klan’s secrets from how they ran their meetings, to how they were organized, and even what their secret handshakes looked like.

He actually discovered that beneath the violence and horrific racism the Klan was pretty stupid and after a while he was ready to report his findings to the world.

Unfortunately this was going to be difficult since the Klan was big and Kennedy had no idea if the police of newspaper editors he could share his findings with were members.

So Stetson went to the writes of the popular Superman radio show and together they came up with a 16 part radio drama where Superman fought and defeated “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”.

I won’t talk about the story, you can read a synopsis here and listen to it here if want the original serial complete with ads for Kellog’s Pep, but what I do want to talk about is the real world impact that story had.

The story claimed to expose real Klan codes and practices and in 2005 a book called Freakonomics stated that this single radio serial was the biggest contributor to the decline in Klan membership in the 1940’s.

Whether it’s true or not the fact remains that Superman helped fight and bring down one of the worst and most vile hate groups in American history.

No other hero in popular culture has had that kind of impact on our society and way of life, and that is why this story is the greatest Superman story ever told.  It doesn’t matter how many people like Superman or if people thing he’s too powerful or boring.  What matters is that he is there for us as an example of pure, unadulterated good in the world and worthy of being the champion for the ideals of truth and justice that America was founded on and strives to live up to.

 

Happy July 4th everyone.

Golden Age Showcase: Labor Day special

Happy Labor Day everyone!

For our non American readers Labor Day is an American holiday where we celebrate the social and economic achievements of the American worker by taking the first Monday of September off to celebrate the end of summer and eat even more than we should.

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In all seriousness though, Labor Day was created in honor of the American worker in 1882, during a time when American labor was going through something of a rough patch involving quite a few labor strikes and even more strike breakers.

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It was an important time in American history and I strongly encourage anyone who reads this to look into it further.

But we’re not here to talk about labor politics, we’re here to talk about Golden Age superheroes.  And what better day than Labor Day to talk about the big blue Boy Scout of comics, the one who made it all possible, and the one who everyone looks up to.

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Origin and career

Do you really need me to explain the origin story of Superman?

Okay, really quick for anyone who doesn’t know:  Superman is an alien, his planet blows up but not before his father sends him away on a rocket ship just before the planet explodes.

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After crash landing on Earth, the baby boy is taken in by a loving family in the middle of Kansas and adopts the persona of mild mannered Clark Kent.

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He becomes a newspaper reporter and dedicates his life and powers to uphold the idea of

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

See, one thing that might be a bit off putting to comic book readers who are used to  lot of moral ambiguity and complexity in their stories is just how sincere that phrase was in the early Superman comics.  The character of Superman was created by childhood friends Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster.

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They were two first generation Jewish immigrants who fervently believed in the idea that America was the promised land of opportunity and was a chance for anyone to make a life for themselves regardless of race, religion, or creed.  Superman was created to be the embodiment of that ideal.

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However, while America was the land of opportunity for many, there were still quite a few problems that had to be sorted out.  Superman was created in a time when the food lines and horrific unemployment of the Great Depression was still fresh in everyone’s mind

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Europe and Asia were undergoing massive and terrifying social, political, and military changes.

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and there were many people who believed that the American dream should only be limited to those where worthy and racially pure enough to deserve it.

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As a result, Superman had to fight for his existence in his new adopted home and fight for it he did.  Thankfully, Superman was gifted with extraordinary abilities of strength, speed, and durability.

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These gifts allowed him to wage a one man crusade on behalf of the common people and against anyone who sought to undermine the welfare of the common man in order to preserve their own selfish interests.  And protect the common man he did, in the very first issue he brings a wife beater to jail

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Saves a woman from a death row execution

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And sends a terrified corrupt politician to jail by walking across a telephone wire leaping from incredible heights

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It should be noted that the Golden Age Superman was kind of an asshole.

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But his original purpose still stood.  Superman was the great hero for the times, a tireless social crusader who campaigned for the rights of the common man against anyone who would take advantage of someone less powerful than themselves.

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So what happened?

Time.  Time happened.

Let’s be perfectly clear here, Superman never died.  He’s one of only two superheroes (the other being Batman) who survived the superhero dead zone of the 1950’s due to his massive popularity, even becoming the first superhero to appear on television.

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Despite everything that was going on in post war America people still gravitated towards the idea of Superman because he was above all else, a good man.

With that said, while Superman remain unchanged that didn’t mean the times changed around him.  The 1960’s saw the rise of Marvel Comics and the Silver Age.

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Comics became more focused on two things.  First there was an emphasis on science fiction and the fantastic adventures many of these heroes could go through.

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And more importantly, the Stan Lee led Marvel Comics introduced the idea that superheroes didn’t just have to be gods among men, the could be normal flawed humans just like us.

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These new ideas were the complete opposite of Superman’s original purpose but the massive popularity of these ideas resulted in several changes to the character that took him away from the original vision.  Not only was Superman incredibly overpowered and boring, but distrust in the American government in recent decades even resulted in Superman renouncing his American citizenship.

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Bear in mind, the ideas that Superman stands for are still there.  He’s still an incredibly powerful individual who stands up for those who cannot defend themselves, it’s just a little bit different and usually on a much larger scale.

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In my own personal opinion there are still some fantastic Superman stories out there, and one of the best is Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman.

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I won’t go into details, you can read it on your own if your curious, but if you ask me the reason why this story is so great is because Grant Morrison gets Superman better than almost anyone in the past couple of decades.  Superman was created as an incredibly powerful being who stands against oppression, tyranny, and despair on behalf of the common people and at his core, he still stands for that.

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